The building was old, really fucking old – old like most places in Brooklyn weren’t any more. Most of the buildings in the area had been re-built, or completely overhauled so that they looked the same outside but inside they were sleek, modern attempts at retaining old period features. Not Bucky’s building.
Of course, that was Bucky’s fault.
There were half finished renovations in the main hall. A hole put there by a sledgehammer, some drop cloths, and a couple of tins of paint. One wall had a ladder leaning against it; dust a couple of inches thick and a spider had made a nice little home between the metal legs. They’d sold the old place after the last of the rent controlled biddies died, the ones who never bothered Bucky, and the ones Bucky never bothered. A few of them remembered him, the strapping young lad who worked all the days god gave him to provide for his maw and four sisters after his dead-beat, good-for-nuthin’, drunken brawler of a father skipped out on them. They remembered him more clearly because they’d found his body on the stairwell. He’d fallen, they cops had said, fallen an broken his neck. Tragic, a young guy like him – hardly even 20, waitin’ to be shipped out. The army lost a good lad. His funeral was cheap, an his paw wasn’t there to lower him into the dirt, his sisters had a black eye each and his maw had held herself funny.
Three days later, his father (who’d shown up the night poor Bucky Barnes took his ‘accidental’ tumble down the stairs after a rollicking argument that the whole building heard) was found at the bottom of the same stairs. The police said the same. Drunk, they added, could smell it on his breath. The look of sheer terror on his face was just rigor. It happened, they told the worried residents.
People were different back then though – some were fresh off the boat, some had parents who remembered old stories. Superstitious. Hit your wife, smack your kids… might take a trip down the stairs. The Barnes Boy was lingering around, keeping his eyes on you.
They remembered, so when the stairs would creak and the sound of an old argument would linger in between the cracks of the walls, they just got on with it. The last to die was Hellen Patterson. She’d lived in the brownstone her whole life, never left even when she married, didn’t leave when her kids wanted to move to a nicer part of Brooklyn, refused to leave when her grandkids wanted to ship her off to a home down south, where it was warm even in the winter and she’d be around people her own age. Hellen Patterson who kissed Bucky Barnes when she was 15 and wanted to marry him when she was 17 and sometimes swore that she saw him standing in his moss green uniform, watching over her as she got older, and frailer.
When she died, alone and forgotten, the sound of a young girl laughing to the beat of a big band drifted through the building. “I knew you were a flirt,” a breathless giggle might have been heard.
“I knew you wasn’t.” A stronger voice might have blown through the old place. But no one heard anything, and a week later, when her body had been found, the building was bought by a fat man in suit.
He sold it three days later, with a sheen of sweat on his forehead, to a smaller man with a grin like a shark, for much less that it was worth.
The thin man sold it 6 weeks later, to a man who wore a very expensive suit and cufflinks.
And then he sold it not an hour later, swearing in fluent Italian and crossing himself repeatedly as he fell down the stairs.
The new owner, who showed up once and put a hole in the wall before Bucky threw him against the other, left his stuff and never returned.
It was the wheezing Bucky heard, before the key even turned in the door. A death rattle, the used to call it, when he was younger. You heard a guy breathing like that and you knew to keep away. The key turned easy, because Bucky could do things. The windows weren’t smashed and the locks didn’t scream when he pushed them open.
The door opened to a guy, who looked both too young and too old for his body. Small, underfed – scrawny and pale and looking like maybe he was looking for a place to sit down and die, but at the same time his eyes were bright blue and shining and his hands were steady and large. Bucky hadn’t ever seen a man he’d call beautiful. Sure, he’d seen pretty boys, and he’d seen handsome guys, but this guy was beautiful. Too masculine to be pretty and too finely built to be classicly handsome. It made him feel… unsettled… as he watched.
“This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” Someone was saying behind him, as he stepped through into Bucky’s building. The other guy was tall, muscular and dark. He looked darker, Bucky thought, because the first man was so pale he was almost translucent. “When Riley died he left me a record collection that was half mine and a mortgage I couldn’t afford.” He carried on, as the paler man just looked around. “No old dead uncle who met me once left me a fucking building.”
“And a cat.” The pale man said, touching the hole in the wall. Bucky bristled. “If Nat hadn’t fallen in love with him I’d be drowning in guilt and suffocating from allergies.”
“A building and a big bag of money.” The dark man carried on, as though his little pale friend hadn’t spoken. Bucky stood at the top of the stairs and wanted to scream at them to get out. He hated strangers and their touches, the way they looked at his home like they had a right. “Steve, you really think this place is safe? The lawyer was pretty insistent that you didn’t come here alone.”
“It’ll be fine.” The pale one, Steve, wheezed. His breathing was laboured, it disturbed the dust – Bucky could hear how the fine orbs that floated around them caught in his lungs and caused him to choke. It wouldn’t take much for this guy to go. His friend though, had a determined look that Bucky didn’t like. The kind of fierce protectiveness that spoke of a lifetime of looking out for his skinny friend. Bucky could smell sand on him, a distant wind and heat – he’d left something important in the desert and it followed him. “I’ve never seen one of these buildings without all the modern stuff.” Steve said, looking around. “There’s not even an elevator. I had a look at the plans; it’s got about twice the amount of rooms it was built for.” He sneezed, loud and annoying and disturbing more dust. Bucky hoped it choked him. “Illegal subdivisions.” He gasped, lungs struggling. “Real depression era stuff, Sam, it’s amazing it’s lasted.”
“You aint gonna last though,” Sam said, pulling at Steve’s bicep. He was so thin that even with his winter jacket, Sam’s hand easily spanned around it, fingertips almost touching. “Let’s get you some air, okay?”
The front door slammed shut when they left, and Bucky swept through the hall, dredging up years of sediment dirt and dust high into the air. Let it choke him, Bucky thought viciously.
Three days later, Bucky was sitting in what used to be his bedroom – and his sisters’ room too, space had been tight – when the wheezing rattle of useless lungs alerted him to Steve’s return.
He drifted through the building, to watch as the tiny, delicate man lugged a machine through the door. He wore a pair of work gloves and a mask made of white papery stuff that Bucky supposed was to keep the dust that still hung in the air, out of his lungs. He felt guilty, suddenly, that he’d stirred up the air the day before. If he hadn’t, then Steve wouldn’t have to wear a mask, and Bucky would have been able to see his whole face. The squareness of his jaw… Bucky jerked away, those thoughts weren’t safe. He kept those thought hidden, even from himself.
The building had new electricals – only about 20 years old, something installed when Hellen had still been alive, although Bucky had thought it would have been terminated. However, when the machine was plugged into the socket, it started to whirl and stutter a little. The dusty air was pulled in, and clean pure air was pumped out. Bucky glared at the machine.
“Hello,” Steve said, causing Bucky to stop with his hand over the machine, ready to plunge his hand into the wires and stop it dead. “I’m Steven Grant Rogers.” Bucky blinked, pulling back. Steve wasn’t talking to him, he realised after a moment. He was talking to the building. “I’m 27, and I… uh… I guess I inherited this place from my uncle.”
The machine chugged along, clean air blowing against Bucky’s legs. “I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I think you’ve got some real character. I’m an artist, I’ve drawn a lot of buildings – I’ve never had much more to do with them than that.” His voice was a little muffled through the mask, but Bucky could hear him lick his lips.
“I read into this place. You’re really interesting.” He said, walking over to the stairs. Little eddies of dust flew up with his steps, sucked into the machine. He sat down in the dirt and dust, not bothered about his clothes. “Listen to this.” He said, holding out a piece of paper. “Built in 1912 by a group of developers called ‘Sheppard and McKay’ the property exchanged hands during the great depression, when the rooms were divided against code to house desperate individuals, willing to pay over the going rate for even smaller living spaces.” He paused, gave a cough that rattle his chest even more. Bucky wafted some of the orbs into the machine, which ate them up.
“In 1941, the building exchanged hands again, and in 1953 was placed in a rent controlled programme. In 1995, when the last tenant died, the building was sold to Leo DeSinta, who only kept the property for 3 days before selling to Harry Shipton. He sold it after 6 weeks, claiming that the building ‘hated him’ and was driving his workers mad. It was bought at a basement price by Lewis Lauder – who insisted that the building was haunted after he was bodily thrown across the room – and sold again after a then record breaking 48 minutes of his entering the building.” Steve gave another little cough, but Bucky had pushed the dust right back, listening intently. “It was sold again to Jasper Dex, who lost it in a game of poker, to Grant Rogers. That was my uncle.” Steve added to the empty room. “He never came to see you. I think you might not have liked him,” Steve said, folding up the paper. “From what I’ve been told, he wasn’t a great guy.” From his pocket, he pulled out another piece of paper. “I did some digging around, you know. I found this. A lot of people died here, old age, heart attacks… general stuff. But two people died weird. George Barnes, and his son, James Buchanan.”
Bucky startled, not expecting this… stranger… to say his name. There were three doors on the front landing, and all three of them opened, before slamming shut.
Steve, sitting on the step, jerked bodily.
“George?” He said, blinking.
When nothing happened, he gave a cough – maybe through nerves, maybe because the doors had stirred up the air again. “James?”
The old lightbulb over their heads, exploded, raining shards of aged glass falling over the dirty floor. “Ghosts.” Steve said, looking up at the light fixture that was swaying slightly. “I inherited a building, a bag of money, a cat that could kill me… and a ghost.”
Bucky was pacing. Steve had swept up the foyer, his machine eating up the dust in the air that even that small task threw up. He’d tried to keep talking, but it had been obvious that he was struggling to breathe. “Just getting over some pneumonia.” He had gasped, before leaving the broom propped up against the wall. It was dark outside now, Steve having left the machine chugging in the foyer, eating up the air. When he’d left, Steve had turned it off, but an hour later Bucky had flipped it back on. The air was bad for Steve, Steve who had talked to an empty building and then Steve who’d tried to talk to a ghost he couldn’t see, even though it hurt him to breathe, never mind talk.
Moving stuff was easy, got easier through the years. The longer Bucky stuck around, the easier it got. All he had to do was concentrate and he could see his reflection, he could use his hands to switch lightbulbs and put out smokes. He’d helped out Hellen all he could when she was struggling. She’d called him a nice boy when he turned off her forgotten stove as she dozed, saving the building from burning down around her ears.
He picked up the broom.
“Morning building!” Steve said, as he unlocked the door and stepped into the foyer. “Good Morni…” His voice trailed off as he looked around. Bucky had swept up the floor, and… maybe he’d given the old wooden floor a good scrub too, just because it had looked pretty terrible. When he’d been younger, the tenants had taken turns to wash each level of the building. Back then, clean was the only thing people had, and they made sure that they had plenty of it. You could have eaten off the floors… if they’d had anything to eat.
The machine, which had been churning through the stale air in the hallway all night had done its job, even Bucky could tell that it was clean to breathe. It wouldn’t stay like that, not once all the other doors were opened and the mess inside them disturbed, but still. If Steve would stay in the foyer and not bother too much about the rest of the building, he’d probably not die of dust inhalation. “Oh, uh… wow, okay. Was not just making things up in my head.” He said, walking about the clean area. “Are you…” He paused, muttered something under his breath that sounded a lot like ‘fucking clichéd idiot’ before finishing: “Are you there?”
“Yeah.” Bucky said, completely forgetting that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to stand behind Steve and scare the living shits outta the guy by actually talking.
Steve gasped, well, if you could call the strangled intake of breath a gasp, and then just didn’t seem to be able to get another breath into his lungs. He’d turned, and saw Bucky, before hitting the floor, landing hard on his knees and gripping at his throat. “Shit!” Bucky exclaimed, pulling back. He hadn’t really expected Steve to be able to hear him, or see him – not really. Although Hellen had sometimes spoken to him, after catching glimpses of him out of the corner of her eye, but even if he stood right in front of her, she would look through him. “Sorry! Sorry, Stevie, shit, you gotta breathe, okay? Steve? Stevie?” He said, trying to calm the other man down. He racked his brain, his dusty memories and sat back a little. Becca had the asthma. “You need a bath of hot water and some menthol salts.” He said, getting up.
Sitting on the step though, Steve had pulled a small plastic tube and shook it three times before holding it up to his face and taking a deep breath. His eyes never left Bucky.
Almost as soon as the… air? Powders? Hit his lungs, Bucky could feel them relaxing, and in a few minutes, Steve was just breathing a little heavily – lips no longer blue but pink, maybe a little purple tinged at the edges. But he hadn’t blinked, was just staring at Bucky like… well, a bit like he’d seen a ghost.
“Hey,” Bucky said, holding up his hands so that Steve could tell he wasn’t holding anything. “You’re the little punk who owns my building, huh?”
“Steve Rogers.” Steve said, nodding. His throat was raspy and it sounded like it hurt him to talk.
“Bucky Barnes.” Bucky grinned, tipping his hat. He was wearing his army uniform. He didn’t always. He could change – he died in his undershirt and suspenders, when he’d first come back, that was all he seemed to be able to wear, but he got stronger as time went by. He’d tried to wear different things, modern things, but it seemed that unless he’d owned it in his life, he couldn’t wear it – which was a shame. He thought he’d look nice in some of the modern fashions he saw people wear as they walked past his building. He certainly liked girls wearing those tight pants… and those fellas too. His paw would have killed him if he’d even looked at a fella when he’d been breathing, but his paw had killed him anyway, so what did Bucky care?
“Bucky?” Steve said, after a few seconds.
“James Buchanan Barnes.” Bucky said, and smirked. “Names after the world’s most boring president.”
“The worst.” Steve corrected, then closed his mouth.
“No, go for it, punk, you calling me the worst?”
Steve flushed. It was something to see, considering just how pale he was. Bucky wondered how far down it went, and stopped himself from going any further down that rabbit hole. “No, I mean, James Buchanan. He was the worst president… uh, there was a poll.” Steve paused. “Worse than Bush, apparently.” He added, in a tone that clearly said he didn’t agree with that at all, and that maybe Bush was something Bucky might wanna scrape off the bottom of his shoe before he stepped inside.
“Oh, well… okay.” Bucky shrugged. He didn’t really care. “No one but my maw called me James anyway.” He said, with a shrug. “There were four guys my age in this block called James, and I didn’t wanna get stuck with Jimmy or Jim or worse – so everyone called me Bucky.”
He paw had called him Junior, and Bucky always hated it. “Okay.” Steve said, nodding. “Bucky. Hi.” He paused. “Um… are you… angry?”
“No, why?” Bucky said, getting to hit feet at turning on the machine that would keep the air clean for Steve. The tiny blond was watching him carefully.
“Well, you’re… um… and I don’t… I thought… ghosts… um…”
“Don’t strain yourself, Stevie.” He smirked. “Might hurt something.”
The glare he got in return was fierce and heated. “I’m not a kid, you… you jerk! He snapped. “I just didn’t think ghosts were real and I’m trying to be sensitive!”
“Oh, really, huh?” Bucky found himself teasing. Flirting. He was flirting. With a fella.
“Yeah.” Steve said, getting to his feet. “And I don’t need you doing the cleaning. I can do it. I’m not helpless.”
“It was my building before it was yours.” Bucky shot back, banter, Christ, he’d missed banter. Missed having someone to talk to, missed talking. 20 years since Hellen died – he realised. He’d been silent for 20 years. “And anyway, I was bored. You left all your crap laying around, it was annoying.”
Steve bristled, then paused, and looked guilty. “I didn’t… I mean… I didn’t know that this place was… uh, occupied. I just thought it was an only empty building. I hired people to come in, to fix things.”
Bucky hated the idea of people in his home, Steve was okay, he guessed. Steve talked to the walls and made him feel alive again, but people…
“I spoke to this guy, Stark, he’s got the plans. There was going to be an elevator.” Steve paused. “I didn’t think… um.”
“Come on.” Bucky said, holding out his hand to Steve. “Put the mask on.”
They climbed the stairs. Bucky’s apartment had been on the top floor, which had been a nightmare for his maw – trying to cart his three sisters up all those stairs and the water was never hot by the time it hit the top floor bathing room at the end of the hall. Through the years, that had improved – new plumbing and all that – but it still sucked. Steve’s hand was in his, a strange feeling of warmth. Bucky hadn’t touched a living thing since he’d died. Couldn’t remember when he’d given up trying. But with Steve he felt real. Felt like all those years of floating around like some monster movie villain were just… gone. There were 6 doors, but 10 rooms. The original walls had been taken down so that the landlord could split them to cram more people in.
Bucky’s door was open.
“This is my place.” He said, walking in, Steve trailing behind. He’d started up with his wheezing rattle about half way up the stairs, and Bucky had walked a little slower so it wouldn’t look like he was coddling the tiny guy. He was standing in the doorway, and Bucky felt a little pleased that he hadn’t just walked in. “You can come in. Mind your boots on the floor.”
His place had never changed. His maw and sisters had left when his paw had fallen down the stairs after coming face to face with his dead son, unable to pay the rent. They never came back, and Bucky never found out what happened to them. He hoped his maw went back to her parents in Iowa like she always threatened to. No one ever rented his place after that – he made sure of it.
“Oh, wow.” Steve said, walking inside. There wasn’t much. The room hadn’t been remodelled along with the rest of the building, and anything his maw and sisters left was still there. The threadbare couch was clean, dust free, well looked after but almost 80 years old – it had broken down the middle after Bucky had lost his temper once, and he didn’t know how to fix it and it bevelled in on itself. There were beds in the corners, and a crib.
“My maw and paw slept through there.” He pointed to the only other room. The door was shut, nothing inside, not even a bed. His maw sold it, and all the other furniture before she left. No one had wanted anything else. “And me an my lil sisters slept here.” He pointed to the bed nearer the window. “I got that un, cause I liked the window view, and I could get out through the escape to the roof for a smoke.”
No one had been in this room since his maw left. No one. And now Steve was inside, pulling off his white mask and touching the couch, the cot. “Becca slept there, and Mary by the stove. It was warmer, she got cold easy. And Beth, she was in the cot. There was Maggie, but… we all got the fever and she was only a baby, an maw swore she’d never have another, not ever.” He paused. “I don’t care about the rest of the building, but… I live here. This is mine.”
A week later, Bucky was sitting on his bed watching Steve as he ate his meal. He’d brought up a folding table and chair, camping stuff, brand new. The seat had a fire resistant tag that hung down and when Steve tucked his legs under the chair, he jerked every time. Bucky thought it was funny to watch him realise it was just a tag and not a spider or something. He liked to watch Steve working. He’s got plans spread out on the table and the whole building was a disaster of noises and people and Bucky’s skin was crawling, but Steve was sitting in his room, eating, and Bucky could relax. He knew Steve couldn’t see him, but – and this was one of the things that Bucky liked about Steve – he talked anyway. No matter where he was in the building, he chatted away. “So Stark’s guys are going to be putting in the elevator next week, they’ve almost finished putting in the foundations for the shaft.” Steve had brought in pictures of what Stark could do. Asked Bucky’s opinion, made sure Bucky knew what was going on. It still… hurt... to have the building messed around with, but Bucky could deal. “And the lower rooms have been resized. We’ve been able to keep the crown moulding.” He added. “It’s real plaster.”
Sam was walking into the front foyer. He would show up after work most days, around 7, and take Steve away. Bucky was really starting to hate the sound of Sam’s footsteps on the stone stairs leading up to the building. But never, ever, as much as he hated her.
She, her, was Peggy Carter. The kind of dame Bucky would have knocked himself over trying to talk to back in the day, the kind of red-lipped, quick witted girl that had fella’s lining up around the block just to catch a glimpse of her. She was everything living breathing Bucky Barnes would have wanted – hell, she was everything any man would want, and Steve was no exception. When Peggy Carter was in the room, Steve lit up like the sun was shining on him, filtering through his smile and making the world a better place.
She would laugh and smile and tell Steve that the building hated her – how else would every window jamb when she tried to open them, or doors slam when she was about to walk through? Steve would shrug and laugh too – too wheezy, lungs struggling – and later throw Bucky dark looks.
But at least Peggy kept Steve in the building. She wanted to talk about the history and the period features and how much she loved the old place. Sam wanted to take Steve away. Back ‘home’.
“Sam’s here.” Bucky whispered, his breath ruffling Steve’s blond hair and the papers on the table.
“Good.” Steve grinned. “He can tell me what he thinks of this, since you aint talkin’ much today.”
“I don’t like people touching my stuff.” Bucky managed after a wait. Sam was walking up the stairs. It took him less time than Steve, but longer too – because he liked to talk to the guys working. “I can feel em all moving about.”
Steve nodded like he understood. “Another month.” He said, softly. “And then it’ll just be paint and easy stuff.”
Bucky huffed out a breath that made Steve shiver, and Sam appeared in the doorway – taking Steve away.
Steve was gone for two weeks.
While he was gone, they put in the elevator.
And smashed up his room.
When Steve came back, Bucky didn’t come out. He hadn’t hurt anyone – not even when they tossed out his sisters cot, or his bed, or the couch that his maw was given when she got married. Steve came back though, with a plastic medical bracelet on, and heavy lines around his mouth and dark bruises under his eyes – a rattle in his lungs a thousand times worse than it had ever been – and sat on the floor of Bucky’s room. He cried.
“I’m sorry,” He said, when Bucky didn’t come out. “I’m sorry. I told them to leave this one alone, I swear, I promise.”
Bucky didn’t come out.
It seemed that when Steve had been out, Stark had made a few changes. The whole top floor of the building was split into two rooms, rather than the original six. Bucky’s apartment had been swallowed up by the empty space, which Stark told Steve over and over (and over and over) would be the most amazing penthouse in Brooklyn.
And that was why Bucky hadn’t hurt Starks guys.
Stark had designed the penthouse for Steve.
Steve would move in.
Steve would stay with Bucky.
He stayed away. Although Steve would still talk to him, still sit on the folding chair and eat his lunch on the plastic table, Bucky didn’t show himself. At night, when the building was locked up tight and the dust and dirt would settle, then he’d wander through the familiar spaces made unfamiliar and try not to think about how he felt like he didn’t belong. He wanted… things he couldn’t have. Things that were for living people. It didn’t help, that something was pulling him out. Sometimes he’d find himself drifting away, a tug easing him towards the door. Outside. Something pulling at him, tugging him. He wasn’t ready to leave. He thought maybe someone was trying to get him to leave. To cross over, like Steve sometimes talked about. Steve wondered if Bucky had crossed over.
Steve still talked, and Bucky still kept to the shadows, where the dead belonged. They didn’t belong in the sun, with Steve. Steve needed light, needed people. Maybe needed Peggy and Sam and even Stark, who Bucky would never really like after he’d touched his home, his things.
After a month, Bucky expected Steve to stop talking, but he didn’t. Steve was apparently pretty sure Bucky had crossed over to ‘the other side’ but he still talked to the empty room.
After two months, he moved into the renovated penthouse and after three he kissed Peggy Carter after dinner and a movie and Bucky… Bucky…
People moved in to the apartments. It felt like no time at all since Steve had walked up the steps, wheezing and struggling, and now the rooms were full of people. It didn’t bother Bucky as much as he thought it would. He was losing time. It had never happened before, but sometimes he could hear things, words echoing in a weird way, a low beep, a sound like a bellows. Sometimes he’d blink and see a man in a white coat, looking at him. It scared him.
But he couldn’t tell Steve, because Steve was real and alive and Bucky was just a shadow. A ghost. And Steve deserved more.
“They’ve got a dog.” Steve said, looking over the application form. People were so desperate to live in the building that they filled out forms, had references. “I don’t know about that. I’m allergic.” He paused, looking over the forms again. “But they seem nice. Maybe… I mean, as long as… I don’t want to discriminate against dog owners.”
Steve had his first real attack one night for no reason Bucky could tell at all. One moment he was sitting on the couch, reading a book and occasionally reading sections aloud, and the next he was doubled over, hardly even wheezing. Bucky waited for a few seconds, waiting for the inhaler to work, but even after two long puffs, Steve was still not breathing right. He passed out a few moments later, and still couldn’t breathe.
He had a fancy mobile phone. Bucky had seen him use it a few times, understood how it worked in theory. No one in the building had a phone when he’d been alive but people got them later. Not fancy ones that looked like Steve’s though. Bucky picked it off the table where it was charging and pressed a few spots on the screen. There was a telephone shaped button; it flickered when he pushed his finger against it carefully. A list of names.
He hit the first one.
“He’s not breathing.” Bucky said, panicking. “He took his inhaler but he’s not… he’s not…”
“Who is this?” Sam asked, but already Bucky could hear him moving, on his feet. “Have you phoned an ambulance?”
“No, I… No. You have to do something!”
“Okay, look, I’m gonna call an ambulance, okay? Nat, NAT!” A scramble. “Steve’s passed out, can you call – yeah, fuck, you’re the best.” Another voice, a woman’s, in the background. Steve still wasn’t drawing enough breath to keep his heart steady and Bucky never hated his airless lungs more.
“You’ve got to help him!”
“Okay, I’m on my way, Natasha’s calling the hospital, they’ll be there soon.” A pause. “Who is this?”
Complete silence on the line. “Oh shit.”
Bucky couldn’t leave the building. The doctors – the paramedics – they asked him questions. How long had the attack lasted, how long had he been unconscious, had Bucky given CPR?
By the time Sam arrived, they had Steve half way down the stairs, oxygen forcing its way into his lungs through a mask, and Bucky was fraying around the edges. He could hear the beep beep of a machine he’d searched the building high and low for. He could see the white walls around him.
Sam was running up the stairs, wearing what looked like pyjamas and boots, and when he saw Bucky he stopped dead, as though he’d run into a wall.
“Holy shit.” He breathed, looking at him.
“You’ve got to go with him.” Bucky said. “I can’t leave.”
Sam came back alone, a few hours later. He looked uneasy as he stepped into the apartment that had once been the homes of nearly eight other families, all squashed up together. “Um, hello?”
“Is he okay?” Bucky asked, stepping into the light. “Is he… did he?”
Sam was staring. Staring at Bucky like he’d seen… well… “Oh god, he wasn’t going crazy.” Sam breathed. “I was so sure he was going crazy.” He gaped, and then snapped out of it as Bucky felt his temper rise enough to cause the lights to flicker. “He’s fine, he’s okay. Uh the paramedics think he got too excited over sexy roleplay. Shit, you’re a ghost.”
“He’s okay?” Bucky said, and if he had a beating heart he was sure it would have evened out.
“Holy shit.” Sam was saying, stepping closer. “Holy shit. Look at you.”
“Back off, pal,” Bucky snapped, he didn’t like people in his space. People who weren’t Steve.
“No, I mean…” Sam said, still walking closer. “Jim Proctor? Are you Jim Proctor?”
There was a man. A man in a hospital bed where Sam worked. A veteran. He’d been brought home after the war with only one arm and a headful of ghosts. He’d taken an overdose after living rough, and was currently plugged in to a machine that kept his heart beating and not much else. His family had been notified, but apparently he’d burnt a lot of bridges when he’d returned, hard, cold a cruel. He’d gotten into a fight with his brother, who kicked him out.
Sam sat on Steve’s couch and told Bucky all about James Buchanan Proctor, named after some long dead relative to make his grandmother happy. His grandmother had been Rebbeca Proctor, who’d been born in Brooklyn before her mamma had taken them to Iowa.
“He’s Becca’s… grandkid?” Bucky managed, and the lights over his head flickered dangerously.
Sam nodded. “Look, ghosts are so far out of my… damn, okay, ghosts are not something I’m going to be able to deal with, okay? I just can’t. I just know that Jim Proctor is a dead ringer… sorry… uh, he’s a mirror of you. You guys could be twins.” Sam said, looking at Bucky hard. “I mean, really. It’s weird. Maybe the jaw is different. I dunno, he has a beard.”
Bucky nods. Becca got married. Had a kid. Her kid had a kid.
“Course, he’s gone.” Sam said, sadly. “Killed his brain but not his body. They’re keeping him alive but…” He shrugged. “His insurance won’t last much longer. I’m sorry. You just… I saw you and I though… my god.” He looked up at Bucky. “I thought Steve might… I thought maybe he as lonely and sick and it made it easier to think there was someone else. Someone around.”
“He’s got Peggy.” It sounded just as bitter as it felt, Bucky realised. It sounded hurt and wounded and biting, and Sam’s returning look was gentle.
“Peggy went back to London. Married her boyfriend. Steve didn’t…?”
It was news to Bucky. It shouldn’t have been, of course, not after that night… “I blew up the fuse box last time she was here.” Bucky admitted. “I didn’t mean it… but we’re not talking… I’m not… he needs…”
“I’m having a conversation with a ghost.” Sam said, blinking. “A real ghost. Who needs a pep talk.” He took a deep breath and began. “Steve needs someone to talk to. He needs someone to look after him, although he’d rather die than admit it. He’s lonely. He’s angry at the world.”
He’s the kind of guy who won’t give up, even if it means talking to himself for months just in case Bucky was listening, Bucky thought. “He’s the kind of guy who’ll let a couple with a dog move in even though he’s allergic to pretty much everything about them.” Sam finished. “They’ll let him out in a few days.” He added, as he stood up. “I’m only here to pick up a change of clothes and some toiletries.”
When he left, all Bucky could hear was a steady, constant drone of machines that didn’t exist.
A week later, Steve was helped into the apartment by Sam. “Yo! Casper?” He called out, making Steve smack him on the arm. “What?” Sam asked, grinning. “He’s a ghost. He’s friendly.”
“He’ll kick your ass.” Bucky said, directly behind the other man, who screamed and dropped the bag he was carrying, and Steve laughed hard enough that his lungs seized and both Sam and Bucky were scrambling for his inhaler.
“Bucky!” Steve said, grabbing at his arm, but – for the first time – his hand went directly through Bucky’s bicep. “Oh,” Steve said, pulling back. “Sorry.”
“It’s not you.” Bucky shrugged. “I, uh, I think that maybe it’s time for me to go. Really go.” He stepped away from both men. “I feel like I’m being pulled away all the time. It’s hard to… it’s hard to stay.”
Steve nodded. He looked upset, but that was probably just the light. No matter what Sam thought, Steve wasn’t lonely. He had Sam, and Peggy. Bucky wondered why he hadn’t noticed she wasn’t around so much anymore. Was he drifting in and out of awareness more than he thought? It seemed like the only time he was ever really present was when Steve was there. Any other time he was just… nothing, surrounded by a steady beep and white walls. He hoped it was heaven – he wondered if he deserved to go after the things he did. After his paw fell… after his paw was pushed. Bucky had done that.
He’d been angry, so angry – unable to do anything as his old man, drunk and loud, had started beating on his other kids, Bucky’s sisters. Without Bucky there to protect them, to get between those angry fists… He’d snapped. He’d appeared in front of his father at the top of the stairs and pushed, hard, not expecting anything to happen. But it had. And his old man had gone down the stairs, just like he’d thrown Bucky not a week before.
He was sure after that, Heaven wasn’t an option.
But that white room was calling him, and Steve would be fine. “I’ve got to go.” He shrugged.
Sam Wilson was a good man. He’d been in love with Riley, and he was in love with Natasha. He was a good friend – he hoped, at least – and he’d spent more than his share of time sitting with Steve in the last year. The ghost in Steve’s building was gone. Sam couldn’t tell, but apparently Steve could – he said it felt empty.
The ward was quiet. It always was. He thought about Steve as he walked through the rooms, checking the charts to make sure that all the patients were getting their physio. There were three coma patients in long term, and Sam had taken to having his lunch in Jim Proctors room. Steve had visited, just to see the resemblance and agreed it was uncanny. Jim had a squarer jaw under his trimmed beard, the shape of his nose taken from some other relative, but they could have passed for brothers. Twins, even, if you don’t look too closely.
“Morning Jim.” He said, sitting down on the plastic chair he’d brought one day from the hallway. “Things looking pretty stable still, I see.” He casually flipped through the notes and checked that the readings hadn’t changed. In a few days they were going to turn of the machines that kept him breathing – his health insurance had run out and all other avenues exhausted. The steady beep-beep of the life support was muted, volume turned way down. There was no need to have it any other way, and the bright overhead lights made the room almost glow white. “So, you’ll never guess, Steve – the fucking idiot – got himself admitted into hospital last night after locking himself into the store cupboard for three hours by accident.” Sam said, putting the chart back. “Trying to escape the dog in 104.”
He’s just about to leave when something that shouldn’t beep, beeped.
And then all hell broke loose.
He opened his eyes to a bright white room and the scream of alarm and panicked. There was a tube in his throat, hard and unyielding, and when he started to thrash around, someone grabbed his arms and told him to ‘Stand down’ like he was some mindless soldier. He panicked some more. “Jim!” Someone was saying, “Jim, you need to relax, okay? You’re in the hospital.”
Panic fades when something cold and sharp fills his veins, and the tube is pulled out of his throat quickly. It burns, but he’s too relaxed to do much else other than retch a little at the sensation. People are talking to him, over him – their words are hard for him to understand and he feels like he’s far away. The white walls aren’t so bright the next time he opens his eyes and the room is empty. There is a chair, he wondered if anyone ever sat in it. Looked uncomfortable.
The beep-beep is louder, less soothing and more jarring, he struggled to block it out.
Sitting up was hard. Although he wasn’t bound down, he couldn’t get his arms to work. It was only when he almost tipped over that he realised that he only had one arm. It wasn’t bound up – looked like an old wound, the stump rounded. If it wasn’t for the scars over the skin he might have thought he was born with it. His memories were jumbled up; it hurt when he tried to think too hard about things. There was a man, handsome, tall. He came into the room a few times, told him things. His name was Jim Buchanan Proctor, which sounded almost right, but not quite, like he’d misheard something important. The doctor – Dr Wilson – spoke to him with a gentle voice that he liked. Told him things about why he was in the hospital. He’d taken drugs, too many, and he’d been very nearly dead when he was found. He was homeless, which surprised him. He didn’t feel homeless. He felt like he had a place, that someone was waiting for him. He just couldn’t work out who, or where.
Jim Proctor carefully got to his feet. It was hard to do, he felt lopsided – his legs felt like jelly. He’d been in a coma, he’d been a few days away from dying, really dying, when they turned off the machines. Dr Wilson sat with him that morning at talked about things. What they’d been able to find out when he’d been admitted. Jim got the feeling he was keeping something back, like the way he watched for expressions at the casual mentions of things. He talked about his own wife, a dancer at the Ballet – whom he talked about in reverent tones, his best friend, who had been sick recently.
Jim – the name felt wrong, he couldn’t quite figure out why – had a brother who he’d called once he’d woken up. His brother, Richard, sounded unconcerned about his apparently miraculous recovery. Jim wondered how badly he’d screwed that relationship up that his own brother just said ‘Huh, okay.’ Like it was a story he’d heard on the news, and not something that happened to his blood.
He walked around the room. His ass was hanging out of the gown, and it made his cringe. He didn’t feel like he was the kind of guy who liked his ass hanging out, even if there was no-one to see him. He didn’t feel like the kind of guy who would just lay in bed either. He’d been a soldier, Dr Wilson had said. He’d fought in a war, won a medal.
He just… he felt wrong. Wrong in his skin.
“Okay, so thanks to goodwill,” Dr Wilson was saying, walking into his room with a sports bag. “I’ve managed to get you some stuff around your size.”
Jim blinked. He was pretty sure he wasn’t gonna want to wear anyone else’s clothes. The idea made his skin crawl more than the idea of his ass out. “Okay.” He managed. Talking was still hard, like his mouth wanted to shape words the wrong way, like his accent – those upper mid-west vowels stuck in his teeth and made him trip over words he should find easy. The other doctor, the one he didn’t like as much as Dr Wilson, said it was because of his overdose, because of his coma, because he’d messed himself up so bad, because of the war. Dr Wilson told him maybe it was because he’d lived in New York for a while, out on the streets, and his accent was messed up. He asked Jim to say ‘I’m walking here’ and then laughed at how he said it. For some reason, that made Jim smile too.
“Okay, so I got some new boxers and socks – my treat – and then these. It’s just some jeans and a sweater, but it’s better than what you’ve got.” Dr Wilson was saying, pulling out the clothes. It was a little more than that, a warm looking blue jacket, faded and a little worn but obviously well made, a moss green long sleeved shirt he liked the moment he saw it, and a sweater with thumb holes almost the same colour. A pair of boots, sturdy and black leather, with thin laces. “They’ll be releasing you soon.” Dr Wilson was saying, as Jim pulled on the clothes. The doctor had already seen his ass, but he pulled on the boxers one handed under the gown he was in before he pulled it off. “I’m sorry. Your insurance just won’t cover any aftercare.” He sounded genuinely sorry. “Do you have anywhere to go?”
“Yeah,” Jim said, without thinking. “I gotta get back home.” The jeans were well worn, soft with age and washing, and the t-shirt was a little too big but he loved it. “He’ll be alone.” It was awkward, dressing with only the one hand, but he was getting the hang of it, slowly.
“Who’ll be alone?” Dr Wilson said, voice overly calm. Jim felt like he might have been trying to squeeze any feeling of emotion out of it, like Jim had said something interesting.
He blinked. “I…” He blinked again. A few seconds ago he was so sure that… there was something – someone – waiting for him. “I don’t know.” He admitted after a break. “I just…”
“It’s okay.” Dr Wilson said. “I’m… you know what? I’m gonna call my buddy, and I’m gonna see if he can help you, okay?”
The building was familiar in a way a lot of things weren’t. Everything about it screamed at him, that he knew this place, that he was going home. Dr Wilson (please, Jim call me Sam, okay?) had told him that his buddy had a spare room he was willing to let him use till he got on his feet. They’d taken the train, and walked. The streets felt good under his feet, although it was bitterly cold. Sam was telling him things, telling him about the VA meetings which were non-negotiable – he had to attend, okay? – and the best local deli. Told him about where he might get some work, what forms he needed to fill in for government assistance. It was too much to take in, but when they’d stood at the bottom of the building, Jim felt his heartbeat even out.
“Huh.” He said, blinking, aware that Sam was watching him like a hawk.
“I just… I think… maybe I know this place?”
Sam friend lived on the top floor. When he opened the door, he stared at Jim like he was a ghost, pale and beautiful. “Jim, this is Steve.” Sam was saying.
They were both watching him carefully. Sam, guarded and concerned, Steve – bright and hopeful.
“Uh, thank you for letting me stay here for a lil’ bit.” Jim managed, feeling awkward under their scrutiny.
He started having nightmares that night.
He had dreams about the war, about his arm, about a man yelling at him, a fall down the stairs. He dreamt about his brother in Iowa and his baby sisters in Brooklyn and none of it slotted together. He tried to keep it down, aware that Steve had the room right next to his, but from the looks the tiny, beautiful man would give him the next day, he never quite managed to smother the sounds of his sobbing. He knew that a drink would help, but at the same time he could remember drink on his father’s breath and hated the smell of it – which wasn’t real because his father had been a sober man – an accountant – and never once raised a hand in anger at all.
“I feel like I’m all wired up wrong.” He admitted one night, as Steve put on a movie and they ate food Jim had made. “Like I can’t work out where I belong.”
“You belong here, Buck.” Steve said, smiling.
Steve called him that sometimes. It fit him better than Jim. He thought of himself as Bucky. Bucky felt like a pair of well-worn boots that fit him perfectly, while Jim felt like he’d put his shoes on the wrong feet.
Bucky. When he started working at the call centre, when they asked him his name, he said Bucky and it felt right in his mouth.
It happened one lazy Tuesday. Bucky was sitting on the couch and Steve gave a stifled wheeze – and then couldn’t seem to pull another breath into his lungs. His lips were going blue before Bucky realised what was going on, and he knew, he knew with a blind, honest to god certainty, that he’d seen that before.
“Jesus Stevie!” He whined, getting to his feet and pulling out the inhaler that he knew was stuffed between the couch cushions. “Do not do this to me again.”
When the paramedics looked him over, Bucky stood behind the couch and had a panic of his own. The guys looking Steve over kept making jokes like ‘At least it wasn’t kinky roleplaying this time’ and Bucky knew what the meant. At least this time Bucky wasn’t wearing his uniform. Because he had been here before.
Jim Proctor hadn’t.
Bucky Barnes had.
His head hurt – but at least things were starting to make sense – if you could call it that. He remembered his brother, the arguments that they had when he’d come back from the war missing an arm and angry at the world, and he remembered his drunken old man throwing him down the stairs and he remembered the war and he remembered the building before the new elevators went in. The two sets of memories that had confused him now made sense. His grandmother had been his sister – and Jim Proctor had taken an overdose that fried his soul so bad it died, and Bucky Barnes had died but his soul was still around.
And Steve Rogers had known.
And Bucky Barnes had too many memories for one person and the moment the paramedics left, Steve Rogers was going to get a complete asskicking for holding back.
Steve was pale and still a little wobbly when Bucky showed out the paramedics. One of them threw him a sly wink over his shoulder just before Bucky shut the door, as if to say ‘well done, tiger’ or something like that, and Bucky felt hot and restless as he watched Steve fuss over the mess that had been made by strangers in their apartment.
“They didn’t have to knock the table over.” Steve groused, picking up his things – a book he’d been reading, the coasters and the notepad Bucky wrote things down in when he got confused about the things in his head.
“That was me.” Bucky admitted, “It got in the way.”
Steve gave a nod, like that was okay, that it was reasonable for Bucky to do something like that rather than someone whose job it was to save his life. “We gotta talk.” Bucky said, feeling bother angry and relived.
He was angry that Steve hadn’t told him everything, Sam too – but strangely thankful that he wasn’t going crazy, that his brain wasn’t as minced as he had started to suspect it was.
“I’m taking all the precautions I can, Jim,” Steve started, like he was heading Bucky off at the pass. He was obviously picking his words right – when he was sleepy or forgetful he always said ‘Bucky’ instead.
“I know that.” Bucky responded. The apartment was full of medications, warm blankets and a thousand types of multivitamins. “I aint talkin’ about that.”
Steve’s head jerked up at his words, the accent that was thick and familiar and felt right in Bucky’s mouth the way those crisper mid-western sounds didn’t. “I’m talkin’ about how you were gonna keep not tellin’ me about what… about… I was here before.” He finished. How the hell did he put it into words? “I was here. And I wasn’t. And you wasn’t gonna tell me, were ya?”
“Bucky, my name’s Bucky and you know it.” Bucky snapped. “I thought I was goin’ mad, Steve!”
“I didn’t know.” Steve said, looking distraught. “I thought you… I thought I was just… and you never said, and… and…” He’d gone pale again, struggling to get his words out and angry as he was, Bucky just couldn’t let that happen, not so soon after his attack.
“Okay, okay, calm down,” He soothed, reaching out to push Steve down onto the couch. “Breathe. I’m mad – but I don’t wantcha to have another episode.”
They talked. Steve called Sam, who arrived with a couple of boxes of pizza and soda because Bucky still couldn’t stand the smell of booze – hated it even more now he knew why.
It turned out that Bucky had been… gone… for about 8 months. Those 8 months, Sam theorized, were when Bucky was merging with Jim Proctor. “I dunno, man. I’m flying from the seat of my pants here, it’s not like I can google this shit, and no one taught me about ghosts in med school.”
Steve had a scrapbook put together, kept under his bed, with everything he could find out about Bucky Barnes, and another one about Jim Proctor and it was easier, somehow, to look at them both and think, that’s me.
“I beat up Richard.” Bucky said, looking at the timeline for Jim Proctor. “I was high, not sleeping. He tried to help me so many times, and I beat him up. More than once. He was… he knew I was troubled, but… everyone has a limit.”
Sam nodded, like he understood. He did, of course. He’d been a doctor in the Airforce, and some of his friends came back wired up backwards too.
“We thought maybe… you just… PTSD, it’s a real thing, and you were dealing with that – what if we just casually mentioned, oh, by the way, you might also be a ghost from the 1940s?”
“We didn’t want to hurt you more.” Sam said, soothing down Steve’s worry. “We didn’t know you were struggling with knowing what was real or not. Although, I guess they’re both real? Like I said, man, this is way over my head.”
It made things better, talking to Sam – and Steve. They helped him work out what was going on in his head. When he started to feel pulled in different directions, he could ask Steve: Is this Jim, or Bucky?
But he couldn’t talk to Steve about one thing that had been bothering him.
Natasha Wilson was not Sam Wilson’s first love, that was a man called Reilly, who died in the desert. She worked hard and often, and her feet were a mess, but sometimes she would stand in the centre of Steve’s apartment and pose for hours, as Steve sketched and Sam and Bucky played cards. Bucky wasn’t sure when he became her friend, but almost from the moment they met, she was… she was it. His best friend.
They had lunch together, which she paid for because Bucky’s job at the call centre wasn’t enough to keep up with New York restaurants. She took him shopping for nice clothes and helped him pin up the sleeve neatly, and got his hair trimmed so sharp that he felt like a new man.
She also treated him like a single person, which was nice. Steve, and Sam, treated him like he was two people – in their minds there was Jim Proctor and James Barnes, two people who had two separate lives. But Natasha (who had been told the whole story from the start) treated him like Bucky was just… Bucky. A new person with some messed up shit in his past. It was great, and soon he was her date when Sam couldn’t make an event.
“Steve’s annoyed with me.” She told Bucky as they left the apartment. There was a drinks thing at the Ballet, Sam was on call, so Bucky had pulled on his nice suit and dutifully played that role for her.
“Why?” Bucky asked, opening the door because both of his mother’s raised him right. “Steve loves you.”
“He’d love me more if I wasn’t stealing his boyfriend from under him.” She smirked, and smirked harder when Bucky felt the colour on his cheeks. “Oh, I see how it is.” She laughed, as the car, pulled away from the curb and into traffic. “Both of you still tiptoeing around one another.” She shook her head. “Bucky, it’s not 1940 and it’s not the army. Man up and kiss him before both of you die of old age, please?”
Steve was waspish when Bucky returned that night. Bucky knew it was wrong, to think that Steve looked his best when his jaw was tight and his eyes flashed steel, when his back was ramrod straight and he talked in tight, clipped tones. He did though, he loved seeing the fire just under the surface. Steve was an alley cat, ready to hiss and spit under all his politeness and kindness.
“Hey, Stevie,” He said, throwing his keys into the bowl near the door. They clattered with the loose change Steve always seemed to have pockets full of.
“Don’t call me that.” Steve snapped, turning away from the door. “It’s a kids name.”
“Okay,” Bucky shrugged, knowing better than to argue when Steve was in one of his moods. He wasn’t the type to sit on an issue and have it fester – if he had something to say he’d norm-
“You know she’s married.” Steve said, cutting through Bucky’s line of thought. “To Sam, My best friend Sam. Who helped you.”
“Really? That rock on her finger didn’t clue me in.” Bucky deadpanned. “Or the fact that we were at their anniversary party last month.”
Steve spun around so fast, Bucky was a little impressed that he didn’t fall on his ass. Probably the sheer force of his rage was keeping him upright. He was about to open his mouth, and Bucky knew by the set of his jaw it wasn’t going to be anything good.
“You know what, Steven, you aint got the brains God gave cheese. Are you seriously gonna stand there and accuse me of trying to… to what? Sleep with Nat? Mary mother of God.” He groaned. “What a fucking asshole you are sometimes.”
Steve glared, but Bucky could almost see his words sink in. “She’s my friend. I like spending time with her. You think I’m screwing around with Sam too?”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“Why not? You already seem to think I’m the kind of asshole who’ll sleep with a married woman.”
“That’s exactly what you’re trying to say.” Bucky said. He felt pretty calm – he knew that Steve didn’t really think Natasha would cheat on Sam, or that Bucky was that kind of person. He was just looking for a fight, which was happening more and more regularly. “If it makes you feel better – I’m not sleeping with Natasha. Or Sam.”
“I know you’re not sleeping with Sam.” Steve glared.
“I could be.” Bucky said, running his hand over his styled hair. “I think you’ll find I’m hot enough to sway him my way.”
Steve didn’t laugh, but the stiffness in his spine eased off some.
“I know you’re not.” Steve said, turning away again, less angry. “I just…” he gave a huff. “Sorry. It’s not right of me to be mad at you for something that’s not your fault.”
“What got your panties in a twist anyway?” Bucky asked, sauntering over. “See some injustice on the TV? Been watching Fox News again?”
Steve did laugh at that, half turning to face Bucky again. His profile still caught Bucky off guard sometimes. Bucky figured… fuck it.
He leaned forward, dropped a swift kiss to that laughing mouth and pulled back. “Don’t watch Fox, Steve, it makes you cranky.”
Steve rocked forwards, pushing more into the kiss than Bucky was expecting – not that he cared. Steve lips were firm and sure, and Bucky smiled a little. “You know,” He said, when Steve pulled back just enough to break the kiss but certainly not far enough away for it to feel like an ending, “Natasha’s been trying to get us to kiss for a while now.”
Steve nodded slightly, the movement causing his lips to brush against Bucky’s like a promise. “Be a shame to disappoint her.” He agreed, before leaning in for more.
No one was very surprised when the next time the paramedics arrived, Steve was wrapped in a sheet and Bucky had his jeans on inside out.